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Will the feds phase out traditional lightbulbs?

Incandescent bulbs have been around for more than 100 years. Senate Energy Committee is working on a bill that might burn them out.
Written by Michael Kanellos, Contributor
The U.S. Senate is examining ideas for phasing out incandescent lightbulbs in favor of more energy-efficient types of lighting, a move that could help curb greenhouse gas emissions and electrical consumption.

The Energy Committee of the Senate is working on a bill, which may hit the Senate floor later this month, that will ask the federal government to set national standards for energy efficiency. A coalition of consumer groups and manufacturers is now trying to come up with standards for lighting to support that goal. Among the ideas being discussed is phasing out standard incandescent bulbs over the course of about a decade.

The move builds on the momentum to phase out incandescent bulbs, which are less expensive but consume far more power than do compact fluorescent bulbs, light-emitting diodes and systems that bring sunlight indoors.

In February, California Assemblyman Lloyd Levine introduced a bill banning incandescent bulbs in California by 2012. It was criticized as another example of kooky California legislation. But since then, legislation banning incandescent bulbs has been introduced in Ottawa and Australia.

There are about 4 billion screw-in sockets containing incandescent bulbs in the United States, according to a spokesman for the Energy Committee. Incandescent bulbs are also incredibly inefficient.

Some researchers estimate that more than 90 percent of the energy that goes into these bulbs gets converted into heat, not light. That's why Easy-Bake ovens work. (Some incandescent-lightbulb fans like to claim that the bulbs help heat their home, but it's a fairly inefficient way to heat a room. Ceiling lamps, after all, end up heating the ceiling.)

Approximately 22 percent of the energy consumed in the United States goes toward lighting, according to the Department of Energy. Approximately 52 percent of the electricity generated in the United States is produced by coal. The hope is that the switch to more efficient lights will lead to the need to burn less coal or build fewer new coal plants.

If legislation is passed, the most likely immediate beneficiaries will be manufacturers of compact fluorescent bulbs, those curlicue bulbs promoted by retailers like Wal-Mart Stores. Compact fluorescent bulbs cost more, but they use about 25 percent of the energy of an equivalent incandescent.

LED manufacturers, though, would likely benefit too. LED bulbs are actually somewhat rare right now, and they cost significantly more than regular lightbulbs. LED lamps, though, are coming down in price. Advocates also say the quality of light is better than what's available from fluorescents.

But don't count out incandescent bulbs completely. General Electric says it plans to come out with incandescent ="6162567">bulbs by 2010 that will be as energy-efficient as compact fluorescents.

Some manufacturers actually make all of these types of lights.

Then there are the more novel ideas. Fiberstars has come up with a system for lighting freezer cases in stores with fiber-optic cables. Other companies have come up with organic light-emitting diodes, or OLEDs, that could turn an entire wall into a lamp.

Legislation banning products has often come under fire from some politicians and economists, but it has worked. In the mid-1970s, appliance manufacturers vigorously fought energy efficiency regulations in California for appliances like refrigerators.

The regulations passed and led to a creative wellspring in appliance design. Now refrigerators consume less than half the electricity of older models but hold more food and cost less, in terms of real dollars.

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